The Best Programming Languages to Help You Get The Projects You Want


What is the best programming language to learn? It’s a question that’s understandably all too common among newcomers looking to learn how to code. With so many programming languages out there and time at a premium, how can you decide which one to start with?

There’s no such thing as a “best programming” language. Instead, select the languages that best fit the type of projects you’d like to work on. A programming language is first and foremost a tool for building software. In this post, we’ll cover which languages are trending depending on the type of project you have in mind:

  • Websites
  • Machine learning, AI, and Big Data analytics
  • Back-end software development
  • Mobile apps
  • Systems programming, robotics, and hardware

Websites

Web development can be divided into two parts: the front end, which is everything you see and interact with on a webpage, and the back end, which includes the data management and business logic that works behind the scenes to deliver a functioning website. You actually need three things to be a front-end developer: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. On the back end, you have a variety of languages to choose from, including PHP, Ruby, and Python.

But if you had to pick one programming language to focus on for web development, JavaScript reigns supreme. Viable on both the front end and the back end, it’s the best language to learn for web development.

Take a look at any of your favorite websites from the early 2000s on the Wayback Machine and compare them to today: the difference is in the JavaScript. Specifically, it enables the full-featured, comprehensive, web development frameworks that allow developers to quickly whip up a slick website in fewer lines of code. Here’s a quick list of the most popular JavaScript frameworks:

  • React
  • Vue.js
  • Angular

A JavaScript developer will typically start with the basics and specialize in one or more of these JavaScript frameworks. If you want to get into back-end development, understanding Node.js and Express.js is key.

Machine learning, AI, and Big Data analytics

We’re currently in the midst of a Big Data revolution. New advancements in machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and data analytics seem to pop up every day. So what are the best languages and technologies for participating in this information revolution?

Python with TensorFlow for machine learning (e.g., developing chess-playing AIs)
Java with Hadoop for big data processing (e.g., leveraging the processing power of Amazon’s web servers)
Scala with Spark for high throughput data streaming (e.g., streaming related to online gaming)
Keep in mind that the above pairings aren’t rigid (e.g., you can use Spark with Python), I’ve just paired the frameworks with their native languages.

If you want to get at the heart of this data revolution, Python is a good place to start. It’s the most popular language on this list for data science and is even used by non-programmers in other industries who just want a tool for crunching big numbers. You can even use it with Hadoop, which was the number one trending skill in our most recent Upwork Skills Index.

Back-end software development

From websites to online games to software as a service (SaaS), there’s always a back end of supporting infrastructure that governs the data processing and business logic that makes it all work. So what is the best language to learn to dive into the world of servers, networks, and distributed computing systems?

Once again, it depends on what you’re trying to do. JavaScript was highlighted above as a multipurpose language that can be a great starting point. But if you want to focus on back-end programming for software, you’ll be better served by a language such as Java, Ruby, Python, C#, or even PHP.

Ruby is preferred for rapid prototyping and MVPs (minimum viable product). Python is a favorite among data scientists. C# and .NET are a must for Microsoft software and services. While PHP represents the back end of more than 80% of websites.

Not sure about the difference between JavaScript and Java?

If I were to pick one, it would be the Java ecosystem. Java consistently ranks first on the Tiobe Index—an index that ranks popular programming languages—for a reason. Not only is it the language of choice for Android, but the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) also gives it interoperability across a wide variety of machines.

Its long history and large community make it the foundation of many websites, software, and services. And Java is a favorite in the financial industry: its combination of security, scalability, and performance makes it great for trading platforms and internal banking software.

Pro tip: Want the JVM advantage but crave trendier programming features such as static typing and functional programming? Give Kotlin or Scala a try. Both are considered hot picks for those looking for a Java successor with modern programming features. Kotlin was even cited as the fastest growing language by the Github Octoverse Report 2018.

Mobile apps

We’re living in an increasingly mobile-first world, and it’s no secret that there are two big ecosystems for mobile app development: Android and iOS. Android has the most devices, but iOS has a more lucrative market. What this means for developers is that there is plenty of demand to develop for both platforms, and you can’t really go wrong specializing either way.

Want to develop for Android? Java is the default language of choice. Prefer to develop for iOS? Swift is the language for you. If your goal is cross-platform development you can get near-native performance with JavaScript using a mobile framework such as React Native.

Systems programming, robotics, and hardware

If you want to work on more of the underlying technology—such as device drivers, operating systems, digital signal processing, and embedded systems—you’ll want a programming language that has a small memory footprint, high performance, and low-level access to hardware to get the job done.

So what is the best systems programming language? While there are many promising languages out there that are easier to learn, you’ll be doing yourself a favor if you start with C and C++.

C++ is basically an extension of C, but you’ll need both to position yourself for a wide variety of projects from conventional servers to the Internet of Things (IoT) devices and even robots. Many languages and libraries are built in C and C++, and having a solid foundation in these fundamental languages will make you a better programmer.

Pro tip: C and C++ have had a long reign as the number one low-level programming language. But if you’re looking for something more modern in the systems space, try Rust. It has a lower learning curve and built-in concurrency which makes it perfect for the distributed future of computing.

Resources to help you get up to speed

Some languages are more popular than others. Popularity isn’t everything, but when you’re starting out it helps to have an active developer community that is eager and willing to lend a helping hand. Popular languages will generally have:

  • Tutorials and FAQs
  • Lots of questions on Stack Overflow, a Q&A site for programmers
  • Community forums
  • An active presence on GitHub, a hosting platform for development projects
  • Useful third-party libraries and frameworks

The Tiobe Index, Github Octoverse Report, and Stack Overflow Developer Survey are all good places to look into the popularity of any language regardless of what you’re trying to build. If you’re curious to see which languages are trending on the Upwork site, in particular, the Upwork Skills Index is key.